One Stitch at a Time

After 18 years of hard work, a husband-and-wife team who own the children’s clothing company Tuff Kookooshka opens their first retail space in Cataumet.

By Kelly Chase | Photography by Kate Donovan

On the second-floor loft of Tuff Kookooshka’s new Cataumet retail space, owner Anastassia Gonye is working on a new design. She’s stylish and cool with wavy blond hair and bright blue eyes and very matter-of-fact as she explains the shark-shaped SeaCozy that’s draped over the tables. She’s making the sleepsack wider to make room for growing feet. Next to her workspace, shelves are stuffed with fabrics and beside them lean bolts of corduroy, cotton and denim, waiting for her to experiment with later. “At first, I thought there was so much competition with cottons. People can go anywhere for them, but I made a few pieces and I learned people were actually waiting for it from me,” she laughs. “So I am going to do a little bit of cotton. I’ve also never done denim, but I am going to try.”

Anastassia and Brian Gonye inside their new retail space.

Anastassia started Tuff Kookooshka with her husband, Brian Gonye, out of their Falmouth home in 1999. Eighteen years later, the Gonyes sell to stores and boutiques across the United States, Canada and Japan, and operate a production space in Fall River. Last year, the couple opened up their first retail location off County Road in Cataumet next to Cataumet Coffee House and Courtyard Restaurant.

Kookooshka means “Little Cuckoo Bird.” It was a nickname Anastassia’s Babushka called her. About eight years ago, they re-branded the company from Tuff Cookie to Tuff Kookooshka after their registered trademark was challenged. Many people and companies still refer to them as Tuff Cookie, but “Tuff Kookooshka is more reflective of who we are and what we do,” says Anastassia.

Experimentation and steady progress, Anastassia says, have been the keys to her business’ success. “Every year, I introduce new things to people. I never repeat, I always have fresh ideas and colors. Customers will find something similar and it’s always the same quality, but it’s never the exact same product,” explains Anastassia. “It’s like illustrating a book; it’s the same character, but it’s moving in different directions and finds itself in different scenarios.”

Each piece of clothing she creates could be plucked from the pages of a fairy tale—a winter hat with furry ears and the face of a friendly bear, a fleece with a layered flower appliqué and a pointed elf hood. “I want children to feel like they are playing dress up without actually dressing up,” says Anastassia.

All of Tuff Kookooshka’s clothing is made in the United States using locally manufactured fabrics, and all of the appliqués are handmade by Anastassia. She pulls out her recent designs: foxes on jackets, owl hats, and scarves with a smiling cat on one end and faux fur tail on the other. Each design is bright, vibrant and simple, but is the result of many drafts. “There’s a lot of trial and error. I spend a whole day just moving pieces around,” says Anastassia. “It looks effortless and easy, but even the simplest garment, you need the right material and it needs to drape right. You can have the best idea, but it has to be functional and comfortable.”

To understand Anastassia’s passion, consider her greatest childhood influences: Her grandmother was a costume designer for theater and opera houses in Russia, and her mother was a textile artist and the master of embroidery for the Russian Olympic figure skating team. Anastassia often fell asleep to the rhythmic click of her mother’s Singer sewing machine, and all around her home were jars of sequins and works-in-progress. After an education in fine art and folklore, she established herself as a women’s fashion designer in Moscow, designing dresses and outerwear.

Years later, after meeting Brian, who was working as a photographer in Moscow, and having their son, the couple traveled to Falmouth—Brian’s hometown—for his brother’s wedding. They spent the summer, then a few more months, and settled into the coastal town. “We came from this dirty city with this sweet baby to here, where there was fresh air, ocean, grass,” she says. “I wanted to go back home to Russia, but we couldn’t be so selfish and deny our son better opportunities.”

The couple resettled and reset. “I started working at the restaurants and tried to figure out how to get back on my horse and it took some time,” says Anastassia. At night, she satisfied her passion for designing and sewing, initially repurposing vintage clothing, and later by taking trips to PolarTech’s factory in Lawrence, where she and Brian would collect discarded pieces of fleece for a dollar of pound. Instead of recreating her business in Moscow, she decided with a toddler model crawling around her feet, fewer materials available to her, and her love of whimsical creations, it made sense to make children’s clothing. Fleece hats came first.

After many church fairs and craft shows and a few displays around Falmouth, including one at Cape Cod Bagel that garnered attention, a sales representative put Tuff Kookooshka out to bigger retailers. Soon, larger orders began coming in, and Anastassia left her waitressing job and launched into sewing and designing full time. “It was a scary jump to go from a stable income to something that you don’t really know, but the restaurant I worked at closed and this opportunity came along and I thought ‘OK, this is it—I guess I have to just go and explore this thing,’” she says.

When Tuff Kookooshka outgrew the Gonye’s sunroom and kitchen table, they hired additional seamstresses and opened a space in Fall River. In the last year, the couple decided they needed a studio closer to home. When the Cataumet space became available, they realized it could also function as a retail space. “It gave us the opportunity to have a studio and also to be part of the community again and service the people who helped me when I was just starting,” says Anastassia.

Standing in their latest endeavor—a storefront (something they’ve never done before), Brian and Anastassia piece together the story of their 18-year journey chasing a passion. Fragments of their story are everywhere in the store: antique Singer sewing machines serve as the base of clothing racks, and in her studio, paintings of her grandmother’s costume designs hang for inspiration.

Some parts of their story have become blurry over time and the couple takes turns inserting memories, stitching together their chronology. But timelines are retrospective and easy to recount, the hard parts are the leaps in the dark, the constant experiments, the day-to-day redesigns, and the uncertainty of a life spent pursuing a passion.

“This is the thing I know how to do the best, and I love doing it,” says Anastassia. “It’s this constant experiment. You don’t know how people are going to react, what people are going to love, what is going to work and what won’t. It’s fun, but it’s scary, too. Our numbers every year are different, but being able to create a garment and send it out into the world and see kids wearing it—it’s rewarding.”

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